James W. Lyons, a dean emeritus of student affairs at Stanford who also served as a lecturer in the Graduate School of Education, died Feb. 9 in Palo Alto.

He was 86 and had been a resident of the Webster Senior Apartments for many years.

Lyons, who arrived at Stanford in 1972 to become dean of student affairs, held the position until he retired in 1990.

Dean of Students James W. Lyons 07/24/1985

James W. Lyons, 1932–2019 (Image credit: Chuck Painter)

Lyons created a legacy of programs to enhance the educational experiences of students, establish student communities and shape policies affecting student life. Lyons’ programs touched all aspects of non-academic life at Stanford, including residential education, counseling and psychological services, career planning and placement, and student organizations and activities.

“When Jim first arrived at Stanford he led the senior Student Affairs staff in the task of identifying what he called ‘assumptions and beliefs’ about our work,” said Margaret Ann Fidler, associate vice provost of student affairs, emerita. “These were simple, straightforward ideas such as: The function of student affairs is to facilitate and complement the academic mission and not to compete with or substitute for it; Stanford’s social, physical and academic environments all affect learning; students learn better in a friendly and supportive community, and when they feel good they learn better; students should be encouraged to assume responsibility for their own affairs; and we should never do for students what they can do for themselves.  These assumptions and beliefs guided our work and decision-making for the 18 years he was dean. It was wonderful to work in an environment which was so values-driven.”

Chris Griffith, dean of students, emerita, added: “As dean, Jim was always in the thick of the learning, taking a stand about issues of importance to students and the community and creating opportunities to teach and model how we should treat each other – with kindness, dignity, compassion and respect.”

In 1981, Lyons established an annual award – the Dean’s Award for Service – to recognize students for exceptional service and contributions on and off campus. When Lyons retired, Stanford renamed it the James W. Lyons Award for Service. Lyons attended the most recent awards ceremony, held last May at the Faculty Club, to thank the eight recipients – six undergraduates and two PhD students – for their leadership and service.

In 1984, Lyons began translating his years of university administrative experience and leadership into case studies for students at the Graduate School of Education. As a lecturer in the school from 1992 to 1997, Lyons helped students understand the range of services, policies and governance typically found in the collegiate setting.

The Stanford Historical Society recorded interviews with Lyons. In a 2012 interview, he discussed a variety of issues, including his general approach to students and perspective on residential education. In a 2013 joint interview with Norman Robinson, associate dean, emeritus, Lyons talked about issues the two faced, including coeducational housing, civil rights, gay rights, domestic partnership, substance abuse, sexual assault, voting, and cultural and economic sensitivities.

“Those of us who worked with Jim over the years remember him as a principled, thoughtful and fair dean who always wanted us to think of ourselves as educators, making sure we were acting in the students’ individual and collective best interests, even if, Jim would add, the students didn’t necessarily always see it that way,” Robinson said.

Lyons was born June 6, 1932, in Jamestown, New York. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history and economics at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania in 1954. He earned graduate degrees at the School of Education at Indiana University: a master’s degree in counseling and guidance in 1956, and a doctorate in higher education, with minors in the history and philosophy of education, and in business administration, in 1963.

He became dean of students at Haverford College in Pennsylvania in 1963 – a position he held until he left for Stanford nearly a decade later.

Lyons was preceded in death by his wife of 47 years, Martha Wichser Lyons. He is survived by his son, Mark Lyons, and daughter-in-law, Valerie, and grandson Adam of Portland, Oregon; and by his daughter, Amie Lyons Clarke, and granddaughter, Alyssa, and grandson Nicholas of Raleigh, North Carolina; and by his deeply loved partner of 16 years, Mary Ann Green Olson.

A celebration of life will be held on Friday, April 12, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Faculty Club. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations in Lyons’ memory be made to the Graduate School of Education or the Office of the Vice Provost for Student Affairs.